BY JOHN REYNOLDS
SPECIAL TO CNBNEWS.NET
He kicked around Florida a few years working odd jobs, pumping gas and trying to
sell baby portraits, not having much luck until he persuaded a newspaper to hire him as a reporter. But that didn't last, and he wound up pumping gas again. Or maybe he was selling cars before losing his job at the newspaper.
As luck would have it, an editor at the Philadelphia Daily News who knew him in Florida took a shot and offered him a job. With rent coming due and his soon-to-be ex-wife living with another man, he decided it was time for a change and headed North. Arriving broke, he secured an advance from his new employer and found a place on Race Street for $10 a night, including complementary unsolicited room service.
I'm piecing this together from his old columns, fictional-autobiography, and interviews. Some of it may have actually happened.
Pete Dexter started out in Philly as a reporter for the Daily News in 1974 covering traffic accidents, fires, and other routine news items. His job may have been routine, but he wasn't. His first boss didn't care for his irregular hours, sloppy dress, or bad attitude, and tried getting him fired. Luckily, that boss didn't last long, and his new boss, Gil Spencer, seeing his raw talent, gave him his own column, turning him loose on the city. Cranking out 900 words, three days a week, Dexter gave his readers a view of the city and some of its characters they wouldn't normally run into – or would want to.
In the early '70s, big city newspapers were looking for reporters to go out into the neighborhoods, bars, and morgues to dig up stories – not wire service blurbs or talking-head sound bites – and with the popularity of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill in New York, they were looking for columnists who could capture a slice of the more “colorful” aspects of their cities with stories overlooked by the mainstream media. They wrote about anything that might inspire someone to invest 25 cents and 10 minutes of their life into, whether it involved sports, political corruption, or a couple of bums philosophizing over a bottle.
And Dexter was as colorful as the characters he wrote about, frequenting the local watering holes, trading stories and shots with other journalists, celebrities, and drunks; looking for his next column or settling for a hangover. You could have run into him at Dirty Frank's or Doc Watson's, hanging with boxer turned thespian Tex Cobb, legendary columnist Jack McKinney, or whoever stumbled in the door that night.
Whether writing about his understanding wife who put up with his antics; the cats and dogs that wandered in and out of his home; or a screwball hanging out on Arch Street, he condensed their essence into a couple of paragraphs, hitting the mark most of the time.
His search for the meaning behind the facts sometimes got him in trouble though: A guy from Grays Ferry took offense to a column he wrote about a drug deal gone bad, resulting in the death of his kid brother. He called Dexter at the Daily News and threatened to break his hands if he didn't retract the story. Pete decided to see the guy to “calm things down.” The guy was the night bartender at a place on 24th & Lombard Street. This was in 1981, before gentrification ruined the neighborhood. His second lapse in judgment was that he went there alone, unarmed.
Sipping a beer, Dexter told the guy he wasn't going to retract the story because he was confident in his source – the kid was doing drugs and it caught up with him. At some point in the conversation someone retracted Pete's front teeth with a bottle. After picking up his teeth, he headed over to Tex Cobb's house, who was hosting a party at the time. Tex and some of the celebrants decided to go back to the bar with Pete to “straighten things out.” After exchanging pleasantries, 30 drunks equipped with baseball bats and tire irons showed up. Sizing up the situation and determining they weren't members of the local softball team unwinding after a game, Tex persuaded everyone to call it a night and head home. Being Pete was the slowest out the door, they caught up with him down the street and proceeded to put him in the hospital for the next six months with a variety of broken bones and damaged body parts.
When he woke up, all he could remember was Tex standing over top of him on 24th Street with a broken arm, yelling “if he dies, all you mutha-humpers is dead.” Eventually, he forgave Tex for his momentary lapse of grammar.
While recuperating, he decided to try his hand at fiction. He was a popular columnist for 12 years at the Daily News, but as time would tell, he would become an even more accomplished novelist. And people took notice. As they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, cable TV stole his idea and characters for their inferior version of Deadwood from his novel without giving him credit. Some of his other novels include God's Pocket and Brotherly Love, set in South Philly, about the mob, street hustlers, and people trying to survive in the city; Paris Trout, about a demented Georgia racist; and The Paper Boy, set in Florida, about a reporter looking for a story and not letting the facts get in the way. He even went Hollywood for a while and did a couple of screen plays, including Mulholland Falls, Rush, and Michael. If Tex Cobb didn't stay with him that night fighting off the gang of thugs, he would have died just being one of the best newspaper columnists to come out of Philly.
After reading his latest novel, Spooner, a fictionalized autobiography, and scanning the dust jacket, I realized that I read every one of his novels, all seven, plus his compilation of old columns. I don't know if that's good or bad: his main themes involve senseless violence and the darker aspects of human nature, though he throws in a good guy here and there to keep it interesting. He's a great story-teller, with a lot of good stories, and a writer who cuts to the chase with as few words as needed.
Gil Spencer, the man who recognized his talent early on, was the editor of the Trentonian and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1974 for a series of articles on government corruption in New Jersey that led to the federal prosecution of a number of officials.
Dexter won the U.S.Nation Book Award in 1988 for his novel Paris Trout, beating out Don Delillo, among others. He used to live south of Williamstown in the Timber Lakes section of Monroe Township in the late '70s, and mentions some of the local landmarks in his old columns.
If you're into old-time journalism, pick up Paper Trails, a compilation of his columns published in the Philadelphia Daily News and the Sacramento Bee from the 1970s to '90s.
CNBNEWS NOTE: John Reynolds was raised in the Bellmawr/Gloucester City area. He graduated from Gloucester Catholic High School in 1972. John is a computer progammer who lives in Gloucester Township. He is the editor and owner of the blog The Diary of a Madman